Inside Story

Lord Salisbury’s message for the housing ombudsman

… and the housing ombudsman’s message for Australia

Peter Mares London 20 February 2024 3160 words

Britain’s pathbreaking 1884 royal commission into working-class housing was launched by Conservative PM Lord Salisbury (centre). Illustrated London News/Alamy

“Complaints have the ability to reveal the truth,” says England’s housing ombudsman Richard Blakeway. And the truth, as he sees it, is that Britain’s social housing system has lost focus, particularly on the intimate connection between housing and health.

Blakeway receives a lot of complaints. More than one in six people in England live in social rentals (compared to fewer than one in twenty in Australia). That’s about four million households, and Blakeway’s office is the place to go if they have a beef with their landlords, whether those institutions are not-for profit housing associations or local councils.

In 2022–23, the ombudsman made 6590 orders and recommendations designed to make things right for residents, including £1.1 million (A$2.1 million) in compensation. The call on Blakeway’s services is escalating at a phenomenal rate. “This financial year we’re up 91 per cent for formal investigations,” he tells me in an online interview. “We’re trending towards 10,000 formal investigations a year.”

Demand will grow even faster if the ombudsman is empowered to extend its services to another 4.4 million households in the private rental market, a change Blakeway would welcome. Most private tenants can’t currently access the free, independent, impartial redress his office provides, but a Renters Reform Bill could make his office the single venue for managing conflicts without the need to go to court.

Blakeway took up his role in 2019. His previous experience included serving as London’s deputy mayor for housing (when Boris Johnson was mayor) and as a director of the government housing agency, Homes England. Answering my questions, he is thoughtful and considered, and not prone to strong statements. In official verdicts on the failures of social housing providers, though, he is more direct.

Last July, for instance, he delivered a scathing judgement on the consistent failings of London’s largest social landlord, L&Q, which provides homes to a quarter of a million people. He found L&Q demonstrated little empathy in responding to residents’ complaints and in some cases was overtly dismissive, heavy-handed and lacking in respect. He ordered the organisation to pay £142,000 in compensation and apply 500 remedies including apologies and repairs. He has been equally critical of other big housing providers.

Resolving individual cases, though, only achieves so much. In a new report analysing complaints by vulnerable tenants, the ombudsman identifies patterns of landlord failure around attitudes, respect and rights. A fundamental reset is needed, he writes, and a royal commission into housing and health is the way to do it.

Remarkably, the ombudsman reaches back to the 1880s for inspiration. The Royal Commission on Housing of the Working Classes was, he writes, the “only inquiry of its kind to explore the relationship between housing and public health.” The commission was set up in 1884 by Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury, who appointed himself — along with the Prince of Wales, former union leader Henry Broadhurst and several others — as one of its its members.

Salisbury believed that government-sponsored housing initiatives were vital to improve morality and health — a view criticised by the Manchester Guardian, among others, which described it as “state socialism pure and simple.” Despite the critics, the commission’s report produced “an explosion of transformative government-backed interventions, from council homes to garden suburbs.”

Britain’s subsequent tradition of regarding housing as a health issue saw significant housing developments led by health ministries. The ambitious 1919 Housing Act, for instance, which made housing a national responsibility, is generally called the Addison Act in reference to Dr Christopher Addison, the health minister who introduced it. After the second world war, Labour’s health minister Anuerin Bevan not only created the National Health Service but also, as minister responsible for housing, oversaw the construction of more than a million new dwellings in five years.

Public inquiries like Britain’s 1884 commission have also played an important role in Australia. Most notable is the Commonwealth Housing Commission initiated by postwar reconstruction minister Ben Chifley in 1943. Its report concluded that “a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need, but the right of every citizen” and recommended that the national government “sponsor a government-financed housing programme.”

Up to that point, federal engagement in what was seen as a state issue had been limited. The commission provided the impetus for Commonwealth–state housing agreements over subsequent decades. While the scale of its ambition was never realised, more than 14 per cent of dwellings completed nationally between the end of the war and 1956 were built as public housing.

Richard Blakeway’s call for a royal commission “to reimagine the future of social housing” in the twenty-first century echoes similar calls in Australia. A 2021 report by the UNSW City Futures Research Centre argued for a royal commission to tackle “the scale and complexity” of the housing problem. More recently, the Centre for Equitable Housing urged the federal government to review its many and disparate housing-related outlays and bring them together in a single portfolio with clear objectives.

But both England and Australia are awash in reports from a succession of inquiries and housing research. Is the problem really a lack of data? Or is it a lack of political will?

One barrier in both countries is a basic disagreement about how to move forward. Proponents of the supply side argument say planning restrictions are limiting home building, driving up prices and rents. For them, the solution lies in looser planning and zoning rules to free up private development. Build more housing and rents will fall.

The contrary position is that market players have no incentive to build the type of homes that low-income earners can afford, especially when the tax system encourages investment in housing as an asset rather than a public good. The corollary of this critique is that government must reform taxation to reduce speculation and invest more public funds in low-rent housing.

These views are not mutually contradictory, and some action is happening on both fronts, but the supply-side argument seems to hold more sway with governments in both countries. In its 2019 election manifesto, Britain’s Conservative Party promised that it would lift residential construction to make sure 300,000 new homes are built annually in England. As parliament approaches the end of its term, completions are falling short of that figure, with about 234,000 new dwellings added to the housing stock in each of last two financial years. In a new initiative, secretary of state Michael Gove hopes to turbocharge development by compelling councils to speed up approvals for home building on former industrial or “brownfield” sites.

In Australia, the Albanese government aspires to deliver 1.2 million homes over five years, spurred by incentives to streamline planning and zoning rules at state and local levels. To hit this target developers would need to increase construction from 40,000 to 60,000 dwellings per quarter. Expert observers like Alan Kohler doubt the industry can build at such an unprecedented rate, particularly in current market conditions.

Investment in social housing has surged in Australia thanks to federal Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund, or HAFF, and renewed state government initiatives. But after decades of neglect these projects won’t be enough to put roofs over the heads of Australians with unmet housing needs, including the 175,000 households on state and territory waiting lists for social housing.

In England, almost 1.3 million households are waiting for social housing, a dire statistic that manifests in clusters of tents pitched on the pavements of central London. In some parts of the city, more than one in ten children and teenagers live in temporary accommodation and are effectively homeless.

The Tory government says it has invested £11.5 billion since being elected to fund an affordable homes programme. It has just doubled a low-cost loan scheme from £3 billion to £6 billion to enable providers to build an extra 20,000 dwellings.

Historically, though, these numbers appear modest. In the thirty-five years after the second world war, local authorities and housing associations built 4.4 million dwellings; by 1981 almost a third of the English population lived in social housing. The share has halved in the decades since, not because demand has fallen but because there are far fewer socially provided homes. This month, the magazine Inside Housing reported that the number sold or demolished in England last year was nearly three times greater than the number completed.

An alliance of England’s largest housing associations has urged Michael Gove to invest £15 billion annually over the next decade to build 90,000 homes a year, a third of them in London. But having just lost two seats to Labour in recent by-elections and facing a wipe-out at the next election, prime minister Rishi Sunak is more inclined to woo voters by cutting taxes than by investing billions in public services.

Labour, meanwhile, is playing a cautious hand. It has promised the “biggest boost to affordable housing for a generation” but not the funding to match. Anxious to appear economically responsible, Labour has just scaled back the £28 billion green investment plan that was to be a central plank of its election manifesto. If Keir Starmer becomes prime minister, a big spend on housing looks unlikely.

As waiting lists for social housing grow, tenants lucky enough to have a subsidised roof over their heads can still find themselves in dire circumstances, reminiscent of the conditions that gave rise to Britain’s first housing inquiry in the 1880s.

In December 2020, in a case that’s become emblematic of the problem, two-year old Awaab Ishak died from a severe respiratory condition caused by persistent mould in the council home his family rented in Rochdale north of Manchester. Mould — one of the systemic problems identified in the ombudsman’s files — is also recognised as a major health threat to tenants in Australia.

Awaab’s parents had been complaining about the mould since 2017 but the local authority failed to act, saying the problem was caused by the family’s “lifestyle.” The ombudsman found many cases of social landlords adopting an accusatory approach rather than investigating other possible causes.

“Health and housing are closely aligned,” says Blakeway, “but the system doesn’t necessarily respond in that integrated way. There’s a real risk that complaints are treated in a kind of transactional way or become personalised. The risk is that they are treated in isolation, and you lose thematic qualities that complaints have, or you don’t do a root cause analysis.”

One housing worker told the ombudsman that tenants who challenge providers are “seen as troublemakers to be quashed.” This view gels with management’s dismissive response to Grenfell Tower residents who warned of urgent fire safety problems ahead of the 2017 inferno that killed seventy-two people.

Community outrage at Awaab’s death has prompted Michael Gove, the minister responsible for housing, to include Awaab’s Law in a new Social Housing Regulation Act. Landlords will now be required “to investigate and fix reported health hazards within specified timeframe.” But whether local authorities and housing associations have the resources to make quick repairs is another question.

More than one in ten dwellings in the social rented sector fail to live up to the Decent Homes Standard, the government benchmark for minimum housing conditions. And the English Housing Survey found that almost two-thirds of tenants who complain to their landlords are not happy with the response.

Tenants told the ombudsman that social landlords were quick to inform them about increased rents and service charges but poor in communicating about all other matters. Not surprisingly, this created a perception that social housing providers are “only interested in money, rather than the condition of their homes or the landlord/tenant relationship.”

An expert panel concluded that communication between tenants and their social landlords is hampered by the high turnover of stressed frontline housing workers. The panel’s Better Housing Review also found that tenants lack a strong voice and face-to-face contact with staff. Blakeway’s research confirms this finding: residents told his office that a simple knock at the door can help to maintain and improve the landlord/tenant relationship.

Funding shortfalls undoubtedly underpin these problems, and the housing crisis has been compounded by the perfect storm of Covid, Brexit, higher interest rates, labour shortages and supply chain bottlenecks. But Blakeway sees other factors at play too.

With around 2000 councils and not-for-profit associations providing social housing in England, a great variability is inevitable. Understandably, the providers’ focus has been on increasing housing supply, but Blakeway says that’s rarely balanced by consideration of what to do about ageing houses and flats in urgent need of upgrades.

He believes that providers hold to a fixed view that social housing is better than any alternative on offer to low-income tenants in the private rental market, which leads them to neglect residents’ needs.

Then there are long-term societal shifts. “If nothing else had changed,” says Blakeway, “the current population in social housing would have got older, above the national average.” That means more vulnerable residents, often concentrated coastal and rural areas.

Housing providers need to think about how to respond says Blakeway: “What does that mean for our services, for adaptations, for understanding of issues like dementia?”

This demographic transition has coincided with residents’ growing understanding of what they can demand under recent human rights, equality and care legislation. The ombudsman says housing providers haven’t done enough to modify residents’ homes in line with these laws. This has been exacerbated by cuts to other government supports. “Social landlords will very clearly say that they feel like they become a surrogate for social and health services,” says Blakeway. “That’s because they are one of the most visible and immediate touch points.”

To survive financially, housing associations are also compelled to become savvy commercial operators. Torus, for instance, claims not only to be the largest affordable housing provider in northwest England, but also “one of its biggest and fastest-growing developers and commercial contractors.” One Housing describes itself as “a group of complementary businesses driven by a clear social purpose, with a charitable housing association at its core.” Alongside social and affordable housing, it offers homes for private rent and private sale.

A lack of funding has forced providers to sweat their assets, a strategy the Better Housing Review panel said “is fast reaching its limits.” The expert panel worried that commercial considerations are distracting providers from their core purpose of providing “decent, safe homes for those who can’t afford the market.” It warns that mergers to achieve economies of scale run the risk of “working to KPIs more related to business efficiency” rather than “complex indicators such as tenant experience and satisfaction.”

Blakeway says consolidation in the social housing sector is driven by noble ambitions but notes organisations become more reliant on processes and systems as they grow. “If a resident doesn’t fit into the neat box or their issues are more complex than the system can cope with, that’s where we can see things being fractured and people through falling through gaps.”

In a 1942 pamphlet, Housing the Australian Nation, prominent Melbourne social reformers F. Oswald Barnett and W.O. Burt surveyed the appalling housing conditions experienced by Australia’s working classes and called for much greater government investment than previously imagined. Health was at the top of their concerns. Without better housing, they worried, efforts to improve health would be “seriously retarded.”

Today, the evidence is even more compelling. In England, the research group BRE calculates that it costs the National Health Service an annual £1.4 billion to treat people made sick by poor housing. Yet there are relatively inexpensive and cost-effective ways of dealing with the major risks: insulation to counter excessive cold, hard-wired smoke detectors to alert residents to fires, handrails to cut the risk of falls, ventilation to minimise mould and damp.

BRE estimates that spending to reduce these hazards would quickly pay for itself in savings to the NHS. In the private rental sector, the payback time would be between eight and nine years; in the social housing sector it would be twelve to thirteen years. (Social housing tales longer to generate a positive return because overcrowding is a major hazard and is more expensive to fix.)

The costs of poor housing go beyond healthcare to include such things as lost earnings for those who fall ill and those who must care for them. BRE calculates that total annual cost to society of leaving people living in poor housing is around £18.5 billion. As well as generating NHS savings, fixing housing hazards would create jobs, reduce energy costs, lower carbon emissions and improve property values.

Looked at this way, public investment in housing seems like a no-brainer, whether as a way of improving lives or as a prudent fiscal move. As the housing crisis deepens, the social and economic price we pay further outstrips the cost of action.

Australia is moving down a similar path to England where, in the 1980s, not-for-profit housing associations began taking on a role traditionally played by local government. Since 2006, the number of dwellings owned or managed by Australia’s not-for-profit providers has more than tripled, mostly thanks to stock being transfers from public housing authorities.

Funding from the HAFF and state programs to build new dwellings will increase the size of the not-for-profit sector and raise pressure on providers to consolidate to achieve efficiencies.But as in England, there is a risk that commercial imperatives could distract from the core business of providing decent homes for Australians priced out of the private market. This is more likely to happen in the absence of consistent public funding and clear government direction.

England has also had sixteen housing minsters in the fourteen years since the Conservatives took office. As the Better Housing Review panel commented, this revolving door means “a lack of consistent and strategic thinking and action.” Yet the panel insists that government cannot outsources its obligations and must remain “fully accountable for the provision of decent housing nationally,” just as it remains responsible for health and education.

Like England, Australia lacks a coherent housing strategy and consultations to develop one have proved disappointing. For almost a decade, Coalition governments in Canberra insisted that housing was a state matter. While this has changed under Labor, we still have a housing minister with no housing department. As the Centre for Equitable Housing argues, the lack of a dedicated department or a consolidated housing budget statement makes impossible to properly shape or evaluate public policy.

Housing ombudsman Richard Blakeway thinks a royal commission could help solve England’s housing challenge and revive understanding of the close connection between decent homes and good health. Housing, he says, is a complex problem where solutions must be built on expertise, impartiality, independence and a long-term perspective — all things that a royal commission has the potential to deliver. Australia’s problems might be different, but they are just as serious. Perhaps here, too, it’s worth considering a public inquiry with the capacity to probe, publicise and make recommendations. •